The Dawn of Prehistoric Rock Art
©1998 by James Q. Jacobs

The most ancient evidence of the production of art predates the generally accepted earliest dates for the appearance of modern humans. Cup marks and a meandering line were etched into a sandstone cave in India two or three hundred thousand years ago. Line markings on bone, teeth, ivory and bone of equal antiquity are known from the campsites of archaic humans. Sculpture, in the form of modified natural forms, has been dated to 250-300,000 years ago in the Near East. (Bednarik, 1998.) An early archaeologically discernible behavior that seems to lack practical purpose is the use of hematite or ochre, the red mineral pigment. This activity dates to several hundred thousand years ago in southern Africa. Although no rock paintings of such great antiquity are known, ochre is later evidenced as a rock art pigment.

Australian rock art may be as old as human occupation of that continent, up to 60,000 years old and perhaps far older. Hundreds of Australian sites may predate the cave art of Europe (Bednarik). In Tanzania rock art sites date back about 50,000 years (Karoma). Painted and engraved images of animals on stone slabs have been excavated and dated to 28,000 years ago in Namibia (Feder and Park). The oldest known example of rock art in Europe is an arrangement of eighteen cup marks on a rock slab over a child's burial in a French cave. Radiocarbon dates for European paintings range back to more than 32,000 years (Gould). By this time art traditions are known to have existed in southern Africa, the Levant, eastern Europe, India and Australia (Bednarik). A California rock art site has been dated to about 20,000 years ago, based on analysis of mineral varnish covering a pictograph (Bower 96a).

Some 200 caves in southwestern France and northern Spain (the French-Cantabrian area) contain cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period (Fritz). These are radiocarbon dated from 32,410 at Chauvet to 11,600 at Le Portel (Gould). By 30,000 years ago rock art included hand stencils, complex finger markings and two-dimensional paintings. Also by 30,000 years ago perspective, shading, outlining of animal forms and the depiction of movement are all evidenced. And the pigments demonstrate considerable effort and complexity of formulation.

Physicists Michel Menu and Philippe Walter studied the residues of red and black paint in engraved bone objects along with charcoal remains from the cave of La Vache. They used scanning electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and proton-induced X-ray emission to examine the physical and chemical properties of the pigments. Radio carbon dating established that the paintings are between 12,000 and 13,000 years old. The red pigment was hematite and the black was manganese dioxide. More interestingly the extender was a mixture of biotite and feldspar (Lewin). Biotite and feldspar do not occur together. The specific recipe of combined ingredients used by the painters was also found in neighboring caves in the same valley.. Additionally, quartz grinding stones with pigment residue were found in the caves. There was also evidence of technique. A charcoal layer under the black manganese indicated a preliminary sketch was undertaken.

The simple black and red paints found in Grotto Chauvet are almost complex mixtures of minerals. At Lascaux the black pigment is 15 percent manganese dioxide, the colorant, with 25 percent ground quartz and 40 percent calcium phosphate. The calcium phosphate was produced by heating bone to 400 degrees Celsius and then grinding it (Fritz).

Here follows some descriptive information for two of the most significant and oldest caves. As a result of these quite recent discoveries and the absolute dating of the paintings therein our concepts of the evolution, threshold of earliest occurrence, and the quality of paleolithic art have undergone significant transformations.


Grotto Cosquer

Grotto Cosquer is named for its discoverer, professional deep-sea diver Henri Cosquer. In 1985 Cosquer discovered a narrow cave entrance 110 feet below sea level on Cabo Morgiou, near Marseille, France. His exploration led him through a 450 feet long sloping tunnel to a large, air-filled chamber. In 1991, during a return visit to the dark chamber, Cosquer noticed first one handprint silhouette on the cave wall, then others. Cosquer returned with other explorers to search for more artwork and found many pictographs and petroglyphs. (Clottes and Courtin.) One hundred images of animals are now documented.

Radiocarbon dating established that the handprints were 27,000 years old, at that time the oldest direct date for hand stencils or any other painting anywhere. Charcoal found in the cave was dated as 27,870 and 26,360 years olds. The dating also established an evidentiary gap of about 8,000 years, during which time the cave was presumably in disuse. During the second phase the depictions and engravings of animals were done. Radiocarbon analyses of the paintings and some charcoal found in the cave was done. Initially three charcoal paintings of animals were directly dated by accelerator mass spectrometer, producing dates of 18,500 and 19,000 years ago.

Of the one hundred images of animals, horses constitute nearly one-third of the total. Some are single heads, others represent the entire animal. Horses are also the most common animal in other caves. In one of the paintings the variation of the coat color is perceptible. Ibexes and chamois, the next most common of the figures, are depicted in very accurate proportions, except for their exaggerated horns. Bison are also presented. The most surprising find was the paintings of sea animals. During the Paleolithic the sea level was about 360 feet lower and the cave entrance was only several kilometers from the shore. According to Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin,

"One of the most delightful surprises of the Cosquer cave was its depiction of sea animals. A few paintings and engravings of saltwater fish are known in Upper Paleolithic cave art, but drawings that look like seals had so far only been recorded in two caves, at La Pileta and at Nerja in Andalusia. In the Cosquer cave we found three painted auks, eight seals, three strange engraved figures that might be fish, and seven painted sea creatures that resemble either jellyfish or squid."
The Cosquer cave remained the secret of its discoverer and a few divers for a time, and they eventually informed officials. Several divers have died attempting to enter the narrow tunnel, and the entrance is now sealed. In 1994 a series of dives provided an opportunity to undertake scientific study. The work was accomplished by Jean Courtin, Jacques Collina-Girard and Jean Clottes. Samples from the intact charcoal and minuscule amounts from a dozen drawings made with charcoal have been dated using the radiocarbon method, making the Cosquer cave unique, the first with more than two dozen absolute datings. The two major phases were confirmed. According to the Ministry of Culture,
"In phase 1 can be seen thousands of finger tracings left on the soft wall surface, including some in recesses or in almost inaccessible corners, or even at heights (3 to 4m) which would have required the use of artificial means (ladders, tree trunks). This phase, of undetermined length and dating from around 27,000 years ago, includes stenciled hands, at least 55 up to now, and perhaps some animals and geometrical signs drawn with fingers.

"Phase 2 was between 18,000 and 19,000. It comprises the majority of animals represented, about 125 to date. Horses are the dominant animal by far, followed by caprids (ibex, chamois), bovids (bison, wild ox), cervids (megaloceros, red deer) and marine animals (seals and penguin). Most of the animals are engraved, less than a third painted.

"A number of geometrical signs were discovered in 1994, several of them, rectangular and having a sort of appendage being quite original in franco-cantabrian art."

The Cosquer Cave: Virtual Visit


Grotto Chauvet

On December 25, 1994, near the village of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, in the Ardche gorges in southern France, explorers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire discovered an exceptionally important gallery of Paleolithic rock art. Grotto Chauvet had been hidden and perfectly preserved due to a prehistoric landslide covering the entrance hundreds of centuries ago. First the explorers noticed a draft of air in the minor cave they were surveying. After clearing a narrow passageway they made their way down a shaft and then into a vast network of galleries and rooms, several hundred meters in length. The explorers found numerous wall paintings and remains of cave bears. Some of the cave bear skulls had been moved to a special position by humans. Since that first amazing discovery more than 300 paintings and engravings have been documented.

The cave system is untouched and remains undisturbed, one of the very few intact Paleolithic painted caves. The cave contains substantial evidence of human activity, including a fireplace, flint, parts of torches, stone arrangements, the placed cave bears skulls, and possible evidence of digging for iron oxide and manganese for the paintings. According to Randall White, "On the floor of Grotto Chauvet, everything is basically in place--torch fragments, stone tools, fire pits, and bones. We have well-preserved evidence of all the activities that were going on in and around these paintings." (in Fritz, 1995.) The cave also contains the perfectly preserved footprints of hears intermingled with those of humans.

The animal paintings, in particular the horses and lions, are comparable in sophistication and accuracy to any other Paleolithic art. It was therefore surpassing to researchers that the first radiocarbon dates obtained (from two rhinoceroses and a bison) produced dates in between 30,340 and 32,410 years ago. (Clottes et al. 1995). This placed Chauvet as the oldest of all known caves with wall paintings. (Gould, 1996). According to the French the Ministry of Culture these datings "have revolutionized hitherto accepted concepts on the appearance of art and its development, and prove that homo sapiens learnt to draw at a very early stage."

The images do not feature polychrome painting such as the later Lascaux, but Grotto Chauvet does rival all other sites, including Lascaux, in the sheer number, diversity, originality, beauty and state of conservation of its works of art. Geometric symbols are more abundant than in any of the other grottos of the ArdĄche, although they are fewer than in caves in the Pyrenees, the Perigord or the Cantabrian region of Spain. The images include those common in the other cave art of the Upper Paleolithic, but featuring an unusual variety; horses, rhinoceros, lions, bison, wild ox, bears, a panther, mammoths, ibex, an owl, symbols, panels of dots, and positive and stenciled hands. Surprisingly, the most common image is the rarely depicted wooly rhinoceros. Second-most common is the lion. Cave bears and a spotted leopard, animals also representing a major threat to humans, are featured (Fritz, 1995).

The French Ministry of Culture describes the cave drawings as follows:

"The area with red paintings includes several panels filled with dots, sometimes with signs added, often complex and original. There is a variety of panels with red animals : in one small gallery a stag is followed at the far end by three bears and a horse. Elsewhere a large panel depicts several bears ; an animal could be a hyena with a mottled forebody ; there is also a panther mottled on the upper body, an ibex and two mammoths. On one wall can be seen a huge rhinoceros with a disproportionately large horn, three more rhinos, a mammoth, two lions, four positive hands and two or three stenciled ones, a semicircle of red dots, a large bovine, a sign made up of two linked semicircles. Overall, several complete stenciled hands and some positive ones have already been identified, along with around thirty red representations of animals and two small yellow horses' heads, in addition to the dots and other signs. The main animal is the bear, followed by the mammoth, the horse, the rhinoceros, the lion ; there is only one example each of the stag, the ibex, the wild ox and other unidentifiable animals.
About a hundred black figures have so far been counted: the majority are rhinoceros, followed by lions, then horses, bears, reindeer, bison, ox, there are also mammoths, megaloceros, an ibex and two unidentifiable creatures. The engravings include 5 mammoths, 3 ibex, 2 rhinoceros, 2 horses, one wild ox and one owl." (Ministry of Culture home page, 1995.)
Due to the number and diversity of the works, their quality and artistic level, their originality and rare imagery, their state of preservation and their context, Groto Chauvet is unique and one of the greatest masterpieces of Paleolithic art. Despite its lack of polychromes or truly large scale paintings, it is on a par with the Lascaux collection. Again the Ministry of Culture reports,
"The workmanship in these images is excellent. The body proportions are natural. The drawings are mainly outlines, although some show tints inside heads or bodies and a knowledgeable rendering of relief. Numerous details of anatomy are defined, such that the animals are very often identifiable without ambiguity as regards species and even sex."
Jean Clottes writes:
" In this vast cave, one finds the same themes everywhere, with a majority of rhinoceroses, lions and mammoths. The omnipresence of these animals is all the more significant since these are subjects which are generally rare in European parietal art. For each species, one finds the same conventions of depiction repeated: the mammoths were sketched with an arched belly, the bison with horns in frontal perspective and a bushy mane, while the horses' manes are thick and massive, and the rhinoceroses have very distinctive ears, drawn as a short double arc on either side of the neck." (Clottes, 1997.)

The Import and Meaning of Paleolithic Rock Art

Rock art constitutes the greatest body of evidence of the intellectual life of our ancestors. According to Robert G. Bednarik,

"Prehistoric rock art is by far the largest body of evidence we have of humanity's artistic, cognitive and cultural beginnings. It is found in most countries of the world, from the tropics to the Arctic regions, in sites ranging from deep caves to high mountains. Many tens of millions of rock art figures or motifs have been found, and more are being discovered each year. This massive, semi-permanent and cumulative record is the most direct evidence we have of how pre-humans first became human and then evolved complex social systems."
Rock art also represents our earliest evidence of the development of systems of symbols. Present day writing systems and alphabets derive, at least in part, from simplification of drawings of objects. This process is one of reduction of the image to a simple geometric representation. Numerous symbolic geometric symbols and dots and lines are found along with the better known representational paintings of the Paleolithic.

The meanings of the representational art have been the subject of academic speculation for decades. In the 1920s noted French prehistorian Abbe Henri Breuil interpreted the art as an expression of hunting magic. Breuil's viewpoint was based on anthropological observations of the Arunta aborigines in Australia. The Arunta painted kangaroos to ensure a plentiful supply of prey in rituals comparable to those of other foraging populations. (Bower 1996a.)

Leroi-Gourhan subdivided Paleolithic art into successive styles and equated older with more rudimentary. His Style I, the oldest, was defined as archaic and crude. This progressivist theory of evolution from rudimentary to sophisticated has recently met with the contradictory evidence cited above, overturning the application of styles to dating and site sequencing. The most sophisticated techniques, shading, outlining and representation of movement, are now known to have existed in the earliest Paleolithic art in Europe, more than 30,000 years ago. Leroi-Gourhan's supposition has been empirically disproved by the discoveries of Chauvet Cave and the advent of the new method of radiocarbon dating, Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS). AMS has made dating of very small amounts of organic material possible.

This new understanding fits well with the fact that there is no discernible change in subject matter over time. Pairing of animals and symbols appears in the earliest art and persists. The representational art depicts the large mammals of Ice Age Europe, the occasional human, and the more frequent stenciled handprints. The large variety of signs and symbols, the non-representational category of the art, is rarely given much attention. However the signs are greater in number than the figures, and perhaps in interpretive importance (Gould, 1996). While the artists continually attempted to accurately depict the animals, contrastingly the symbols underwent a process of geometricization. According to Gould,

"(T)hese apparently opposite directions of change for figures and symbols really represent--as Breuil and Leroi-Gourhan repeatedly emphasized--different facets of the same overall theme of progress as the basis of chronology. In painting figures, the artists were trying to do better in representing the animals themselves--and the supposed sequence of styles marks their continual improvement. But in drawing signs, the same artists were knowingly developing a system of symbols--and symbols gain universality and meaning by becoming more abstract and by being reduced to a geometric essence. " (Gould, 1996.)
Several rock art interpretations have arisen. Structuralism has documented the various types of images and their locations and treats the time-inverted analogies based on the behavior of living cultures (hunting magic) as irrelevant. One structuralist viewpoint proposed a masculine and feminine interpretation of the images (Bower 1996a). More recently a neuropsychological model has been proposed. This viewpoint holds that the grids, lattices, parallel lines, dots, zigzags, circles and lines common in rock art of all ages are due to these geometric forms appearing as mental images in trance states induced by psychoactive drugs and other means. The neuropsychological paradigm arose after imagery in 4,000 year old Trans-Pecos rock art was interpreted to represent psychoactive plants evidenced in the archaeological context of associated rock shelters. This interpretation hinges on the unproven viewpoint that those plants were consumed in sufficient quantity to result in hallucinatory phenomena, rather than for their known medicinal properties. Also, the paradigm has been extended to all geometric representations without greater justification that of such imagery being eidetic. In contrast, there is evidence of the mathematical use of geometric symbols (which should be anything except surprising), also from North America (Aveni, Aveni et. al.).

According to Bower, one researcher views the images as "representing hallucinogenic visions of shamans transformed into animals that are considered by local Native American groups to have supernatural powers" while, at the opposite pole, heated criticism of this view has included reference to the researchers aligned with the neuropsychological model as 'shamaniacs' (Bower 1996a). This arena of interpretation seem speculative at best, if not altogether hallucinatory at times. This author fails to understand how medicinal plants found in Texas can be used to interpret rock art in Europe that existed 20,000 years before human interaction with the plants is evidenced. These interpretations has even influenced the nomenclature of sites, with appellations such as "Shaman's Gallery."

The 'shamaniac' viewpoint fails to account for the progression of the geometric designs into more abstract symbols, or for their association with the representational art. In contrast, recent scientific studies of the art, particularly of the composition of the paints, have provided useful insights into the behavior of the Paleolithic artists. An analysis of the geometric art from a mathematical perspective has yet to appear.

Bednarik writes that a most interesting aspect of Paleolithic is its uniformity throughout the world. Despite differences in tools, due to environmental differences, cultural behavior was surprisingly consistent, in his view. He cites as evidence the use of ochre and the repertoire of geometric markings, perhaps an indication of a universal artistic language among archaic Homo sapiens. According to Bednarik, "By about 20,000 years ago, quite recent in terms of human history, cultures began to diverge noticeably." "From about the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago,....rock paintings now bear witness to a multitude of art styles and cultures, to the progressively increasing ethnic diversification of humanity on all continents." By this time the dawn of prehistoric rock art had passed. A few decades ago our paradigm held that it was just then starting. What surpassing discoveries and vast changes in our viewpoint will be next?

This author wonders if the universal aspect found in the geometrical art might not be mathematics. A replay of the style versus function debate in tools may be about to unfold in this area. Perhaps it is the function of the symbols that is universal. Too little evidence exists to make the sweeping conclusions that have characterized the study of Paleolithic art, and too many of them have already been disproved by new discoveries. What evidence that does exist can best be employed to formulate questions for further inquiry.

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